Every year, more than 33,000 people are diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV, most notably cervical cancer. HPV, short for “human papillomavirus,” is a cancer-causing sexually transmitted infection. The vaccine is intended for children under the age of 14, and although it is optional, parents are strongly encouraged to vaccinate their children against HPV.
While it’s understandable some parents might hesitate about vaccinating their children for a sexually transmitted infection, especially if they’re not ready to discuss sex with their children, it is important. They may also be squeamish at the idea of vaccinating their children at the recommended age, well before they are likely to be sexually active (between 9 to 14 years of age). Doctors say that vaccinating early is the way to go. In fact, in places where the vaccine is mandatory, it has reduced the incidence of HPV by 80%. With this herd immunity, very few people are likely to contract the cancer-causing virus. Unfortunately, even though the vaccine has been available for 13+ years, herd immunity in the U.S. is far in the future.
Common Misconceptions about the HPV Vaccine
- MYTH: It’s just for girls. When the HPV vaccine was first made available in 2006, prevention efforts were mainly focused on protecting girls from cervical cancer. Today, HPV vaccines are also recommended for boys, as more males get cancer in the back of the throat than women. Another argument for vaccinating boys against HPV is that there is currently no screening test for HPV in men (the pap test screens for HPV in women).
- MYTH: It only prevents cervical cancer. The connection between HPV and cervical cancer is well known, but HPV poses the risk of many other deadly cancers, too. HPV can progress to cancer of the vagina/vulva, mouth, tonsils/throat, penis, or anus.
- MYTH: Most HPV strains don’t cause cancer, so I don’t need the vaccine. While many HPV infections fade on their own without treatment, the infection can cause painful genital warts and progress to a deadly form of cancer. This is a case of “better safe than sorry.”
- MTYH: It’s unnecessary because I probably already have HPV. It’s true that as many as 80% of people contract HPV at some point in their lives, especially if they are sexually active, and even more so if they have multiple partners. However, there are still benefits of getting the vaccine if you’ve already become sexually active, even if you already have one strain of HPV. That’s because the vaccine protects you from other strains of HPV. Note: the vaccine doesn’t treat an existing infection, it only protects you against the strains you haven’t already been exposed to.
- MYTH: It’s unnecessary to get the vaccine because it isn’t 100% effective. While it’s true that the vaccine doesn’t prevent all strains of HPV, it does protect you against the deadliest and most virulent strains. It also is expected to prevent 90% of HPV-associated cancers among those who were not yet sexually active and were vaccinated before the age of 26.
- MYTH: If children get the vaccine, they’ll be more likely to become sexually active at a younger age. Some parents avoid getting the vaccine for their preteen children because they are under the impression that their children will become sexually active at an earlier age if they are vaccinated. There is no evidence of this, according to peer-reviewed studies. Also, the vaccine protects against HPV for life, meaning even if your child is between the ages of 9 to 14, they should be vaccinated at this recommended age.
It is best to complete the HPV vaccine series before your child’s 13th birthday for optimal protection because the body’s protection against HPV is more effective at this younger age. The HPV vaccine is safe and effective, and most health insurance providers cover the cost of the HPV vaccine series.
To learn more about the HPV Vaccine, visit the American Cancer Society website.